Several years ago Miles MacIntyre, owner of an Arlington manufactured-home factory, read a newspaper article about a handicapped woman who could not find a builder to construct a house with the wide doors and low sinks she needed to get about in her wheelchair.
The story stuck with MacIntyre, and last year he had architects draw up plans for a house for the handicapped that he could manufacture in his factory and sell for $50,000.
"It's a lot cheaper to do it in a factory than to modify an existing residence or site-build one, if you can even find a builder to do it," said MacIntyre, president of MACN Thermal Homes. "It's an intriguing idea -- that we could sit down with a handicapped person, construct a house to suit their needs, and move it to a lot where they want to live."
MacIntyre is not the only home manufacturer to design pre-fab houses for the handicapped. For several years, the manufactured-housing industry has been offering such homes with the encouragement of federal and private agencies for the handicapped.
"There is an increasing need for affordable housing for the handicapped because more and more handicapped people are living on their own," said Margaret Milner, policy analyst for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Years ago, the handicapped might have made a few modifications to their houses and then stayed in their rooms because they didn't have the incentive to move around. Now, with increased awareness, the handicapped want to find their own, affordable housing."
Officials in the manufactured-housing industry, once the purveyors of mobile homes, say they are capable of providing specially designed housing at a cost that is less than that of modified site-built homes.
"The modifications can be made right in the factory, especially since most homes are built to order anyway," said Frank Walter, an engineer with the Manufactured Housing Institute, an association for the approximately 300 manufactured-housing makers.
"Also, traditionally it has been the older, retired people who look to manufactured homes because they are single-level," he said. "One-fourth of our market are older people, and many of them are wheelchair-bound so it is a natural progression."
However, manufactured-home companies have had a difficult time selling homes for the handicapped despite the fact that both the technology and the need for such homes exist, said Susan Fiske, spokesman for the Manufactured Housing Institute.
"There is a consumer demand but it hasn't been tapped into yet," she said. "That's not unusual for something that is a new idea. Who knows when it will catch on, or if it will catch on. But we get calls all the time from the handicapped looking for a house they can afford."
While homes for the handicapped are relatively new to the manufactured-home industry, they have been constructed for years by builders of site-built homes, said Stephen C. Moore, program manager for the National Association of Homebuilders.
"It's been on a case-by-case basis," said Moore. "If someone needs modifications they can usually find a builder to do it. Although major builders have their own set plans and are usually loathe to change them because they make their money by building a lot of the same type of house.
"But the major manufacturers with a set plan are taking a much more aggressive approach than we are," he said. "I can see where that would be an inexpensive alternative to building a modified home from scratch."
Milner, of HUD, said she believes it is only a matter of time before manufactured housing for the handicapped catches on. "Many still are unaware that it is an alternative to modifying an existing home," she said.
Several years ago HUD sponsored a study of manufactured homes for the handicapped that was conducted in North Carolina. "It showed that the handicapped could live very comfortably in modified, manufactured homes," she said. "I'm sure as the need for homes for the handicapped increases it will be a more utilized option."
Meanwhile, MacIntyre is working on a new project -- a factory-built home designed for group living. His plan calls for four modular manufactured units that fit together to form an eight-bedroom house with or without modifications for the handicapped.
Group houses, for handicapped and mentally retarded people being deinstitutionalized, are being sought in the suburbs, and it is often expensive to purchase and modify existing homes, MacIntyre said. "Really the possibilities are endless," he said. "If there is a specific housing need, it is probable that a home can be manufactured to meet it."